Fascism is with us, if only we will see it

The shirts have changed colour, the rites have been altered, but the word still fits. A warning by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto; Fascist threats escaped in disguise and are still effectively exonerated by historians fastidious with definitions
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"It's really fascist to say, 'I love you'," says a character in the cult film Barcelona. You can see what she meant. A declaration of love is an attempt to control. It ties bonds of obligation. It snaps emotional snares. It represents a claim to authority over the body of the beloved - the power of the slave-driver and tyrant throughout the ages.

The audience, of course, is meant to laugh the line off as a wobblingly flabby abuse of language, typical of the sloppiness which dilutes political rhetoric. In the lexicon of the left, from the 1920s to the 1980s, "Fascist!" was a graffito sprayed indiscriminately over any opponent. The effect was to make the accusation unconvincing and to let the real fascists off. Now we have gone to the other extreme. We use the word so guardedly and with so many qualifications that almost any potential Duce or Fuhrer can claim exemption, no matter how far to the right, how bloodied with violence or how twisted with hate.

The time for fastidiousness is over. We have to be frank in identifying fascism, wherever it rises to the surface, at the first flash of its fins - because, just as you thought the world was safe for democracy, fascism is flexing its jaws offshore.

Academic experts have reclaimed "fascism" as the name of a syndrome of features common to specific European political movements in the period between the First and Second World Wars. Yet even the movement's defining characteristics were hard to specify. It had an opportunist's adaptability, a quicksilver slipperiness, a politico's unwillingness to be precise. "There are too many programmes," said Mussolini, refusing to commit himself to another. Fascism was an agile insect, never still long enough to swat.

Today's fascisms can be equally elusive. We must be flexible, too, and adjust our aims as the target dodges and flits. By defending it too narrowly, we disarm ourselves against it. The stricter our definition, the less recognisable a new form of fascism becomes, because any peculiar features seem to disqualify it. The shorter the historical period to which it is made to belong, the slighter our scope for recognising its recrudescence.

Today in every continent vicious authoritarian movements are threatening freedom and compassion, justice and humanity. We should not be afraid of comprehending "fascism" broadly enough to fit them. It will help us to recognise them for what they are: threats to a decent society, potentially as destructive as any we have confronted before. Today, copybook conditions for a fascist resurgence exist wherever Communism is recalled with loathing, while democracy is being tried by disillusionment. Elsewhere, in societies rent by growing wealth gaps, besieged by crime or ground down by unfundable expectations, fascism can promise instant Utopia, infused by force.

It comes in many fashions, not all of them strictly anticipated by the "classic fascism" of the inter-war period. In ancient Rome, a fascis was a bundle of sticks with an axe through the middle of it, carried before magistrates as a symbol of their power to scourge or behead aberrant citizens. These images of the bloodstained instruments of law enforcement, which Mussolini adopted as what would now be called "logo" of his party, express the essence of fascism better than any definition you can write down. Fascism is the weal of the rod and the gash of the axe: the smack of a system of values that puts the group before the individual, order before freedom, cohesion before diversity, revenge before reconciliation, retribution before compassion, the supremacy of the strong before the defence of the weak.

It assumes the supreme value of a particular order of society - without necessarily specifying that order in any agreed way - and justifies, even celebrates, its violent enforcement by the obstruction or obliteration of dissenters, deviants, misfits and subversives. We should identify fascism not only by its conformity to a checklist of past examples, but also by the effects you can feel: the sweat of the fear of it, the stamp of its heel. The colour of its shirtings may change or fade. The form of its rites may be altered or discarded. Its models of society may differ. Still, you can always know it by its works.

Even in the age of democracy's wars of defence, fascist threats escaped in disguise and are still in effect exonerated by historians fastidious with their definitions. Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal were allowed to survive the Second World War. Militarist Japan, Brazilian "Integralism" and even Romanian "Guardism" have been absolved of the taint of fascism by historical revisionists who have pointed out the peculiarities that distinguished them from Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany.

Pern could come to power in post-war Argentina, calling himself a "Justicialist": he ransacked the fascist tradition for policies and techniques, including "economic self-sufficiency" and the sickening leader-cult, but, like Franco, he distanced himself cunningly from model fascism by incorporating the rhetoric of traditional Catholic political thought. The world of their day should not have scrupled to admit that these dictatorships were fascist; nor should leftist critics who used the world freely have been accused of devaluing it.

Let us not make the same mistake again, but be frank about classifying current threats. At one extreme, Iraqi Ba'athism under Saddam Hussein is such a close match with models of the Thirties as to be undeniably fascist. Saddam, who avows admiration for Hitler, has organised Iraqi society for war, invoked the inspiration of an ancient Reich, waged wars of extermination against minorities, launched imperialistic lunges against neighbours, and copied the anti-Semitic frenzy of the Nazis. He looks, walks and quacks like a fascist.

Islamic fundamentalism is one of the enemies he fears most, but it represents a similar kind of menace, intolerant of pluralism, terrifying to dissenters, bloody in its enforcement of moral conformity. It has escaped classification as fascism on the grounds that it is religious: but Franco and Pern escaped largely on the same grounds.

A society that exalts war as virtuous is likely to be a danger to the rest of the world, whether or not it calls war "holy". The fact that fascism was once secular does not mean that it can never be religious.

Some of the most threatening forms of quasi-fascism today are hallowed by ayatollahs and tele-presbyters of the "moral majority", who insist on the unique credentials of a given set of values and want to force them on dissidents. In parts of Latin America, radical Protestant sects are already guilty of trying to mobilise congregations in support of military- backed dictatorships and hierarchies of wealth and race.

Some religious cults, with their crushing effects on individual identity, their ethic of obedience to charismatic leadership, their paranoid habits and their campaigns against the rest of the world, behave in frightening ways like early fascist cells.

In the West, we all know about Italian post-fascists, French Frontists, German neo-Nazis, Balkan ethnic cleansers. But we are not on our guard against the more insidious fascist menace inside our own scientific and business establishments. No one who fears fascism can contemplate with equanimity the growing world power of big business corporations. Despite the common ground staked by liberalism and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, business has had, since then, a poor record in opposing fascism. Business demands slack economic regulation and firm social control: the combination that brought the support of the prosperous for Hitler and Mussolini.

The "competitive" ethic of the trading arena includes many virtues, but it condemns the needy to extinction. Big businesses now commonly have uniforms to inculcate corporate identity. The model of business organisation - with its secret decision-making, unelected hierarchies, leader-cults, chains of command and subordination of the individual employee to the good of the firm - is fine for business. But, if replicated in government, it would produce fascism.

Businessmen often say that governments would be better "if they were run like businesses". Where there is a crisis of credibility in traditional politics, electorates may be tempted to try out the business model for government - just as, in previous crises, they accepted the military one.

Some businessmen - such as Ross Perot, Silvio Berlusconi and Sir James Goldsmith - have already offered themselves as saviours. The intention may be innocent; the effect, if it were ever achieved, would surely be evil.

Science is supplying the arguments and techniques for future fashions in fascism. Just as scientists of a former age made the gas chambers and super-weapons, so those of today are preparing the eugenics labs and the technology of genetic engineering. What Hitler failed to achieve by exterminating under-races and deviants, eugenics engineers now threaten by genetic manipulation.

Just as the doctrine of natural selection was formerly abused by racism, so today's geneticists - as unwittingly, in most cases, as the evolutionists of the 19th century - are creating a framework into which a new form of social Darwinism, which damns the weak, can be slotted. Exponents of the "selfish gene" seem to vindicate Hitler's "divine commandment, thou shalt preserve the species".

Modern science has confronted us with a nakedly amoral and aggressive natural world, in which the source of progress is an exclusive code of collective survival, programmed into our DNA.

The extinction of individual lives is a sacrifice properly made in the interest of the species - like those of the runts forbidden to mate or the spider eaten when copulation is completed. A human world regulated along similar lines should, without hesitation, be called fascist.

Meanwhile, we are creating an environment propitious for fascism. The pace of change forced by breakneck technology is unsettling to most people and bewildering to many. In this state of mind, electors reach for "men of destiny" and prophets of order.

In increasingly complex societies - struggling to cope with rising expectations, gigantic collective projects, baffling demographic imbalances and alarming external threats - order and social control come to be more highly valued than freedom and human rights. Perceptions of society undermined by moral irresponsibility, sexual permissiveness, an alienated underclass, terrorism and rising crime are the fuel of fascist revanche.

Faced with these threats, we should be robust with our language. As with every other weapon in our armoury, we should keep it sharp, but wield it freely. At present, fascism is being allowed to go unlabelled - the hate whose name we dare not speak. It is time to rehabilitate the word and hoist it as a signal to vigilance.

The writer is the author of 'Millennium', published by Bantam Press, pounds 25.